Rev. Wallace S. Hartsfield Sr., a spiritual and civil rights leader in Kansas City for more than 40 years, died Thursday. He was 90.
Hartsfield served as senior pastor of Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church, one of Kansas City’s largest black churches, from 1962 to 1968 and again from 1972 until his retirement on Dec. 31, 2007.
“I have dubbed Dr. Hartsfield the ‘Godfather of Preachers’ because of his vast ministerial knowledge and oratorical skills,” U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, also a retired pastor in Kansas City, said in a September 2007 tribute to Hartsfield in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Wallace Hartsfield II, who succeeded his father as Metropolitan’s senior pastor, said his father was often referred to as Godfather, having had a profound impact through his spiritual leadership in Kansas City.
“He’s regarded as being a giant,” he said. “Having said that, I’m not so sure he would really want that title. My father always wanted to be one not so much just in the front of others but more importantly amongst others. So, maybe a giant within.”
The elder Hartsfield marched with Martin Luther King Jr., worked with Jesse Jackson on the Operation PUSH campaign to improve economic opportunities for African Americans, and was a nationally prominent black minister.
He was involved in countless civil rights, social justice, educational and economic development campaigns throughout his life in Kansas City.
Hartsfield grew up in the segregated South, where he witnessed incidents of murderous racism that spurred him to activism.
In a 2007 interview with KCUR, he recalled a chilling memory from his childhood.
“I was 8 years old, playing in the yard and my great grandmother came out and made me come inside. I saw a pickup truck with a number of Caucasian men in the truck … and behind the truck they were dragging the body of a dead black man that had been hanged and his body had been used as target practice,” Hartsfield recounted. “It’s still painful. I don’t think I will ever be delivered from having seen that.”
But Hartsfield did not let those negative experiences fill him with bitterness. Instead, they motivated him throughout his life to fight for a better life for African Americans.
His son said Hartsfield Sr.’s best quality was fighting for progress and economic opportunities in the African American community.
“I would suggest that your black community, your African American community of professionals that have given leadership since the early 1980s on up to the present, many of them have their positions because of persons like my father who were able to open these doors so they could walk through them,” Hartsfield II said.
Civic leaders and members of his church celebrated Hartfield’s life and accomplishments with a grand 90th birthday party for him last November at Metropolitan.
Cleaver praised Hartsfield in 2007 as “a minister, dedicated community activist, civil servant, and compassionate role model.” He said those accomplishments were recognized through the renaming of the Parkway Post Office at 4320 Blue Parkway as the Wallace S. Hartsfield Post Office Building.
At the official renaming ceremony in January 2008, then-U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill said Hartsfield was a “big, big deal in the community.” She said that during her time as a Jackson County prosecutor in the 1990s, Hartsfield played a large role in citywide efforts to combat drug houses and drug abuse.
Hartsfield was named “One of the Top 50 Ministers in America” by Upscale Magazine of Atlanta and was also a second vice president of the National Baptist Convention of America. In 1998, he was elected board chairman of the Congress of National Black Churches, representing more than 65,000 churches with more than 20 million members.
In Kansas City, he served as president of the Baptist Ministers Union. He also helped create the Concerned Clergy Coalition in 1992 to fight crime and to work with Kansas City education and business leaders for better schools and job opportunities.
“I believe that economic development in the African American community is the present and the next frontier of civil rights," Hartsfield said in a 1998 interview with The Kansas City Star. "If we don’t have the economic power then we cannot be full participators in the American dream.”
He chaired a successful capital campaign in the 1990s to raise millions of dollars to expand and improve the Swope Parkway Health Center, which provided high quality health care services to needy citizens. In 2004, he was appointed to the Missouri Highway Commission by then-Gov. Bob Holden.
Reflecting on his life in 2007, Hartsfield Sr. said key accomplishments had been developing housing for low-to-moderate-income people and helping urban core residents become homeowners. “We’ve bought property to build new homes and have helped older persons hold on to their homes,” he told the Star.
In a 1995 speech to the U.S. House of Representatives, then-Congresswoman Karen McCarthy of Kansas City lauded Hartsfield for leading efforts to develop the Linwood Shopping Center in the blighted Prospect Avenue corridor. Hartsfield also championed a 60-unit affordable housing development for low income residents, called Metropolitan Homes, in the same area.
“He has been a leader in many worthwhile causes and a wonderful role model for our city’s young people,” McCarthy said.
Rev. Sam Mann, retired pastor of St. Mark Union Church and a longtime activist in Kansas City’s urban core, said Hartsfield was a “leader unequaled in the civil rights movement and in what he did for his community.”
Mann also described Hartsfield as a “magnificent preacher and musician.”
“I used to love to hear him preach and would be physically moved,” Mann said in a 2019 interview.
Hartsfield was born November 13, 1929 in Atlanta, Ga., and grew up in Jacksonville, Fla. He served a three-year tour of duty with the United States Armed Services in the Philippines before attending Clark College (now Clark University), where he graduated in 1954.
In 1957, he earned a master of divinity from Gammon Theological Seminary (now the Interdenominational Theological Center) and went on to lead churches in South Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Wichita before he settled in Kansas City.
He married Matilda Hopkins on Aug. 28, 1957 and the couple had four children.
Hartsfield was a steadfast voice for doing what was morally right. In a December 2007 interview with The Kansas City Star, he said his goal theologically “has been to be a light, to guide people to the light and to seek to develop this church to being a light.”
As he neared retirement, Hartsfield told KCUR that many obstacles remained: “Access to quality education, which helps you move into access to economic justice. Health disparities, the whole matter of crime, the politics of doing what is politically correct rather than doing what is morally right.”
Though much more work needed to be done, he said the church had been a crucial agent of progress.
“The reason for the church is to bring a word of hope and justice in situations of hopelessness and injustice,” Hartsfield said. “I may not have the power to change things, but I can be a voice for change.”
Lynn Horsley is a freelance journalist and was a veteran reporter for The Kansas City Star. Follow her on Twitter @LynnHorsley.